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Why Isn't California Protecting its Unique Purple Corals?

Diver admires purple hydrocorals | Photo: Gabriel Lu, Ocean Safari 
Diver admires purple hydrocorals | Photo: Gabriel Lu, Ocean Safari

The purple hydrocoral is a stunning work of nature. It’s magnificent stony coral, often of a vibrant violet hue (but ranging from blue to salmon), that is found along the Pacific Coast from northern California to central Baja. In Southern California, they’re especially prolific around Farnsworth Bank — a series of underwater pinnacles located just two miles off of Catalina Island. They’re one of the few species of coral in California waters visible to scuba divers; the rest are deep-sea varieties. 

The story is that during 1960s, the reefs were so dense that one could see the ethereal glow of the purple hydrocoral from the surface of the water. So exquisite were these corals, that folks started taking crowbars and picking them up by the tons to make jewelry. Ironically, they don’t make very good jewelry. They’re quite brittle, yet people were so attracted to the breathtaking color that they kept on taking.

The pillaging of the corals devastated the site.  

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“It was a different world back then,” Dan Stephens, a recreational diver and marine activist says. “There were a lot more fish and blue sharks.”

Lawmakers leapt into action. In 1973, Farnsworth Bank was declared an ecological reserve by the California Fish and Game Commission, with the purpose of providing special protection for hydrocorals,

Purple hydrocoral with orange sea star and fish | Photo: Gabriel Lu, Ocean Safari
Purple hydrocoral with orange sea star and fish | Photo: Gabriel Lu, Ocean Safari

Yet to this day, an estimated 200 fishing and diving boats visit the site each year and drop their anchors straight onto the reef. Whereas other states like Florida, Washington, and Hawaii have mooring buoys where boats can tie up — sparing the ocean floor from the repeated impact of anchors — this isn’t the standard in California.

“There are just so many broken [coral] branches everywhere,” Gabriel Lu, owner of Ocean Safari, a dive shop in San Gabriel, says, “Some of them are hundreds of years old.”

Hydrocorals, which are hydrozoans related to true corals, grow extremely slowly: one estimate puts their growth rate at .3 inches per year, though studies on the subject are sparse.

Lu, who has been diving the site for upwards of 30 years, says he’s seen a dramatic decline in purple hydrocorals over the decades.

“I see anchors dragging on the corals and I feel really bad,” he says.

Years ago, he brought up the topic at a leadership meeting at his scuba shop and Stephens, a dive master, decided to take on protecting the hydrocorals as a project.

A typical mooring buoy in the Caymans | Photo: Pete Markham, some rights reserved
A typical mooring buoy in the Caymans | Photo: Pete Markham, some rights reserved

To save the corals, he found, mooring buoys must be installed at Farnsworth Bank. This involves setting a permanent anchor to which multiple boats can moor, protecting the ocean floor from being scarred by constant anchor drops.

It’s been done before. Permanent mooring buoy technology was pioneered over 35 years ago in Florida, where they now have over 750 buoys protecting the Florida National Marine Sanctuary. The technique was quickly adopted in Hawaii and Washington State.

California lags behind.

“We don’t have a single buoy protecting any reefs out here,” says Stephens, who has amassed nearly 15,000 signatures on an online petition calling for mooring buoys at Farnsworth Bank.

Cost isn’t the problem. Stephens estimates that it will cost less than $2,800 to install two buoys on the site. He even has the precise coordinates of where the buoys would be installed, and a contractor lined up who would be willing to install the system.

The main issue? The Ocean Protection Council of the State of California has agreed to provide funding for the project, but state law requires that those funds be passed through an outside organization, most likely an NGO, that will take the project on. 

“The challenge is finding a grantee that would be able to be the project manager for this,” says Cyndi Dawson, a policy advisor at the Ocean Protection Council. “It’s going to require permits from four different agencies.” The organization would have to work with the state to administer the funding, complete the require permitting, and educate and train other agencies to install buoys in other sites.

Stephens, who has submitted proposals to organizations ranging from the Nature Conservancy to Oceana to Sea Shepherd, hasn’t had any luck yet. He has repeatedly been met with rejections.

“No one seems to want to assume responsibility for it,” Bill Bushing, a marine biologist whose research centers around Catalina Island says. “They have to take responsibility for maintain it and accept the liability. This isn’t new.”

Purple hydrocoral near Carmel | Photo: Chad King, NOAA/Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Purple hydrocoral near Carmel | Photo: Chad King, NOAA/Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

The conversation on getting buoys installed at Farnsworth has been circulating for decades to no avail. Reports have been recommending mooring buoys at the site since the 1970s. No one has stepped up to the plate.

“They’ve talking about establishing permanent mooring buoys in Farnsworth and in the Channel Islands for years. It just keeps on getting shoved under the rug,” Stephens says. “California can be a particularly difficult place to do a lot of things.”

The fight to protect the purple hydrocorals at Farnsworth Bank is just the first step. Getting these buoys installed would set a precedent for dive sites across California. At present, anchor dropping is the standard practice all across the state.

As a scuba diver myself, I’ve seen firsthand the heartbreaking damage anchors do to reefs across California. Many times on dives, we follow the anchor line to the bottom of the ocean because that is where the reef lies. At the end of the line, it’s pure devastation. Anchors are so heavy that they crush rock, killing whatever lies beneath. While fish can get away, it’s the creatures that live on the rock – like starfish, anemones, mussels, and sea plants, that get pulverized. 

Purple hydrocoral near Carmel | Photo: Steve Lonhart, NOAA/Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Purple hydrocoral with nudibranch near Carmel | Photo: Steve Lonhart, NOAA/Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

“Protecting the hydrocoral at Farnsworth will have direct benefits to the marine species that live and visit there,” Dawson says. “This will also provide a model for other buoy projects across the state and protect other places. As far as we know, there is no road map.”

Stephens, who has been pushing this cause as a citizen diver for two years now, is determined to see this through. Florida, Hawaii, and Washington all have buoys, he points out. It’s completely feasible.

“We’re California. It’s now time for us to develop a plan,” he says.”For a diver, this is California’s golden poppy. We protect the poppy. Let’s protect the hydrocoral.”

Banner: Sea star in hydrocoral on Farnsworth Banks | Photo: Ray Allersick, some rights reserved

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